"The Kanaka Labor Traffic" - J.D. Melvin - The Argus
"Special Investigation by The Argus; A Representative on a Recruiting Schooner"
The ‘bed rock,’ so to speak, of the discussion is the assertion made far and wide that the traffic is a form of slavery, the labourers being decoyed into servitude and cruelly treated. If there was no such accusation there would be no agitation worthy of the name, but the charge has been made and persistently repeated. With a view, therefore, to obtaining an absolutely reliable insight into the manner in which the traffic is conducted, the proprietors of The Argus determined upon a bold and difficult enterprise. They resolved, if possible, to send a representative secretly to the scene of the recruiting, so that every phrase of the work might be watched and impartially and fully reported upon. A capable, experienced, and trusted journalist, who has been very successful in many important ventures requiring tact, discrimination, and perseverance, was selected to the duty, and he has just returned to Melbourne after a four months’ cruise in the Solomon Islands in the labour schooner Helena.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Natives Homeward Bound; The Voyage to the Solomon Islands"
Pending developments, I classed myself with the men in the town who were looking for employment, registered myself to the labour bureau, visited some of the plantations as a swagman, got a job or two branding and filling sugar bags and cutting firewood, and eventually secured an appointment as supercargo on the Helena, which proved the first of the two vessels to sail.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Reception of Returned Laborers by their Tribes; The First Attempt to Recruit"
When they heard that land was in sight, the ‘boys’ deserted their quarters and crowded the bows and rigging. After a prolonged absence, they looked once more on the higher outlines of the first of their native isles. They seemed deeply interested, and were remarkably serious. If they were glad, it was not in a demonstrative way. There was no shouting, no ringing cheer. What was the meaning of their seemingly apathetic demeanour? Did they realize that they were about to pass from civilization back into savagedom – from the care of a parental Government back to the lawless tyranny of island life; from bread, meat, and etceteras in abundance to a scramble for native food; from peace to war; from a country where toil is rewarded and protected to one where might only is right?
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner;The Natives Shy; Inspection by a Warship"
Meanwhile Mr. Mulhern had returned with his trade-box, and was calling for fresh recruits. No doubt different recruiters have different styles. I should imagine that Tom Gash used to be genial and demonstrative. I have been told of one who depended on grotesque antics and Cheap Jack oratory for his success. Mr. Mulhern is not demonstrative, and there is nothing of the buffoon in his manner.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; The Safeguards Against Deception; First Recruits"
So here was an islander who had learned by experience what the so-called slavery in Queensland was, and who was seeking another term of bondage. Where had he worked before? ‘Bundaberg!’ – the very place we were recruiting for, and he was so well posted as to have the Christian name of our recruiter at the tip of his tongue. He was in short thoroughly au fait with the whole business, and wide awake.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Operations in Port Adam; Additional Recruits Obtained; Refusal of Recruits"
One young man, with large and wondering eyes and open mouth, listened to all that was said about the good masters and abundant ki-ki (food) in Queensland, and as to recruits being brought back by-and-by with ‘big fellow’ boxes of their own. He had also the eager look of a youth who desired to see something of the outside world, and he lingered much, first by one boat and then by the other. But he could not apparently make up his mind. Now he would, and then he wouldn’t or couldn’t; and he had to be left in his indecision.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Death of a 'Return'; A Large Number of Recruits Obtained"
Poor Oleseemar, the consumptive return, was now within a dozen miles of his home. He had wasted steadily from day to day in spite of nourishing food and medicine. At Maron Sound he crawled to the poop for an airing and asked for some tea. He was always supplied with whatever he fancied in the way of food, and tea with biscuit was what he liked best.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Re-engagement of Former Labourers; Two Women Accepted; Death of a Recruit"
We had now 16 recruits, and I found for the first time that they had a certain amount of English to learn by rote before they reached Queensland. Perhaps this was not absolutely necessary, but it was evidently regarded as highly desirable. In this matter, too, it was thought that the sooner they commenced their lessons all the better would it be in the end. So when the time came on Sunday for distributing their weekly supply of tobacco and pipes they were put through their facings.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; The Last of the 'Returns' Landed; Brisk Recruiting"
On Friday (September 22) the Helena shifted to Urassie, 11-miles northward. A comfortable anchorage was found inside long lines of reef and close to a creek, whence a supply of excellent water was obtained. Next morning a native market was held near by. From half-a-dozen islets which studded the reefs a small army of people, chiefly women, came in canoes to barter fish for yams and taro from the bush natives.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Competition Between Labour Ships; Re-Victualling Necessary"
On Monday a recruiter made a fair start. At a beach village named Corpew, where the boats were sheltered from the full force of the ocean rollers by outlying reefs, he found himself thronged with natives. It was a lively crowd, chiefly intent on selling produce, birds, and the discarded European clothing of former recruits - all for tobacco and pipes. Two boys offered as recruits. One was refused on the score of youth; the other was accepted at the apprentice wage of six pounds a year.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; In Missionary Precincts, Large Accession of Recruits"
We explained that a large number of boys, on learning that the labour traffic was to cease, and that they would probably have no chance of recruiting again for Queensland, re-engaged for another term without leaving the plantations, and it was more than probable that the friends asked for were amongst that number.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; A Full Ship; The Nineteenth 'Boy' Obtained"
An unusual thing happened on the Sunday night. At 10 o’clock a large canoe came alongside, and its occupants – six youth from Coolacombor, where we got our last two recruits – offered themselves as labourers for Queensland. Could the natives be in league against me? One of the chief objects of my mission was to see and expose the misrepresentations, the cajolery, and the kidnapping, by force or fraud, which certain controversialists alleged to be inseparable from the Polynesian labour traffic. So far I had seen nothing which could be twisted to mean any of those things. On the contrary, I had witnessed natives face danger and overcome difficulties that would have been insurmountable without great determination to join the ship.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Return to Bundaberg; Safe Landing of the Boys"
Brought by my duties into close and daily contact with the boys, I had soon to acknowledge that though many of them were savages in reality, there was much of ordinary human nature in them all.
"Our Representative on a Recruiting Schooner; Concluding Comments; Stringency of the Regulations; The Cost of a Kanaka"
The cruise of the Helena made it very clear that malpractice in the recruiting of islanders is, practically, impossible under the existing system. The traffic is hedged in by legislation in every direction. A ship-owner who intends to bring islanders to Queensland must give a preliminary notice, stating where the vessel is lying, what condition she is in, how many islanders it is desired to carry, what islands she is to visit, and what limit he will place on the duration of the voyage. He has then to apply for a license.